Designing For RealityWe all have our ideal home sketch tucked away somewhere, if only in our minds. If you find yourself driving around looking at vacant lots and touring new homes then maybe you are ready for the next step. Building your own home is challenging and fun. The first step is determining what you can afford. Some lenders or builders will push you to borrow the most you possibly can and convince you that you can afford an even bigger dream. In the construction world, that approach could easily backfire.
The cost of building your ideal home is really just the start. Until you have a full picture of the associated issues, including everything from topographic surveys and septic systems to permits and contingency budgets (oh yes) you would be wise to be a little more conservative--at least in the paper stage. Now that may sound a little odd coming from a lender. When you've been on both sides of the table, you know it might be nice to have a little left over to furnish your larger spaces and finish the driveway. Oh, and pay for the higher cost of cedar siding you didn't anticipate 9 months earlier. Don't be fooled into thinking a 'builder's quote' is all you have to budget for....you must include all the design, permitting and planning costs.
Once you have a lot, plans, a builder and a detailed cost list of materials, things start getting pretty real. I once heard an architect say that on average, most homeowners go over budget by about 20%. Let that sink in.
Land and Site Issues
Do you have a lot? If your realtor is working with you to find a suitable lot, they are often a wealth of information. A knowledgeable local designer will be informed about issues in your area, but it's a good idea to visit your local planning department to check on building restrictions unique to your area before you select a lot.
Before your close on a lot, include a contingency period to allow you to investigate issues related to building on that particular site. Besides zoning restrictions and sanitation issues, most county or municipal building departments have a number of land use requirements that you will need come to grips with. For example, is the lot itself 'buildable'?
Many people pick up a nice cheap lot, usually steep or with other problems like wetlands, and later find out the expense to build on their bargain was anything but. In the Pacific Northwest, where about 80% of our land is a watershed, you can expect there to be very specific issues like mitigating the impervious surfaces of your roof and driveway. Fortunately, your local building and planning department is also a wealth of information, so get in the habit of treating them with great respect and life will be much happier.
Choosing a Design or Architect
Assuming you have land, let's say you are ready to design your home to suit your site. Where do you start? Do you like pouring over plan books? Standard house plans have a remarkable similarity in that many are designed for flat lots, so if you have a decent slope you will need to start with the actual contours of your site. Time for that topographic survey. Builders, bless them, like to build what they know how to build...and more often than not (don't quote me please) they are building a home to be as marketable as possible. It is the rare builder who uses top quality materials and fixtures throughout and puts decent lighting in the bathrooms.
At the other end of the spectrum are architects and home designers. Architects design homes based on your needs, your taste and your budget. A good architect can actually save you money and heartache in the long run because they have the skills and knowledge to build a far better home. Home designers are also a very good, less expensive option, but bear in mind you get what you pay for. A draftsman is seldom very sensitive to space design, energy and materials issues. They basically draw up what you ask them to draw. Ask for references before you commit. I highly recommend that you tour a home or two built by your prospective consultant and actually speak to the homeowners about how they like living there.
Once I was reviewing architects and the homeowner pointed out that a rather interesting low ceiling cove was an 'accident' which the architect drew incorrectly on the plans. Their builder improvised rather than calling the architect to clarify the plans. Another homeowner mentioned their house was 10% larger than they expected because the builder's plans were drawn to the wrong scale. I kid you not.
Considering that you will be happily engrossed in making thousands of decisions along the way, it could be a good idea to hire a home design consultant. There are many kinds of design services from kitchen specialists to interior designers who may help you through the course of the project. Of course, picking out cabinets and flooring may be just your style, but not everyone is able to make so many decisions about so many things at the precise moment they need to happen!
Landscape Early and Often
One very often overlooked area is your landscape. Most people think of 'landscaping' as the part that happens after the 'land scraping'. If you have chosen a lot with intact natural features like trees--perhaps you appreciate their value. Not only is protecting trees important but so is protecting the soil and other fauna. Soil structures take many millions of years to develop and one bulldozer can undo a lot of the viability of your soil in an instant. If you are interested in Low Impact Design then it's time to research appropriate methods in your locale. If you prefer to consider your site as something to be beaten into submission and flattened, you will find many people willing to help you do just that.
Consider your neighbors before you cut down every tree...including the birds and raccoons that live in them and help create the ambiance that lured you there in the first place. In fact, the best time to call in a landscape designer is before anyone sets foot on the land. A good landscape designer or landscape architect will work with you, your builder or architect in the kindest way possible to help your home and site work together. In fact, if I had my way, I would hire a landscape designer to help me pick my lot and brief the architect before picking up a pencil.
Doesn't all this sound like fun? I hope you will enjoy living in your new home as much as you enjoyed participating in it becoming a reality.
Wishing you every building sanity!